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Beyond Fear: An insightful account of the life and times of a remarkable and gentle leader

Published May 9, 2022

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Book Review of Beyond Fear

By: Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma

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Beyond Fear, the autobiography of Ebrahim Ebrahim, is an insightful account of the life and times of a remarkable and gentle leader of the South African Indian Congress, ANC, SACP, and Umkhonto we Sizwe. The life of commitment, activism and fortitude of Ebrahim Ebrahim, whom we affectionately called comrade ‘Ebie’, provides an excellent canvass by which we can better understand our history.

He played a pivotal role in the armed struggle, and very few comrades have survived both the harsh prison known as ‘the university’ of Robben Island and exile. He was one of the few who was sentenced twice to Robben Island. In his reflections, he says: “I can map out my most life-changing moments”, yet every chapter of his book is a potential life changer.

The book sets the record straight on a number of issues. For instance, history books tell us that the motivating factor behind the January 1949 Durban clashes were caused by anti-Indian sentiments driven by Africans. Yet, comrade Ebie recounts how Africans and Indians lived side by side, sharing fireside tales of days gone by, when great leaders such as Shaka, Nehru, and Gandhi kept the moral and cultural code.

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“The thing was there wasn’t much crime prevention or detective work in our areas because the government was only committed to hunting down and prosecuting non-whites who broke its apartheid laws … for the rest, it often turned a blind eye … and it suited the government if we didn’t get along with the African or coloured communities”.

Thus, gangsters and state collaborators were how the state maintained order. As the book points out, it was the influence of the ‘good doctors’ in the guise of Drs AB Xuma, Yusuf Dadoo, and Monty Naicker who lit the peace torches. This was the foundation of the Defiance Campaign, in which comrade Ebie was an active participant.

Comrade Ebie’s humility became his trademark. Even as he narrates his interactions with the highest leadership echelon of our movement, his personal profile is non-existent. Outside the brief narration of his landmark role in collecting the peoples’ demands for the 1955 Congress of the People, he marvels at its multiracial, inter-cultural, interfaith and gender inclusiveness. He comments: “There were young and old; Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews … women were dressed in the ANC’s black, green and gold … there was a mood of defiance (and) … determination to struggle until we achieved the aims of the Freedom Charter … we resolved to resist, even unto death.”

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Those of us who knew comrade Ebie know that once he was committed to something, he would be persistent. Even in the face of danger, it was his commitment and discipline that mattered the most. His memorable statement from the dock in his second Treason Trial of 1987 -1989 is a reminder of this:

“We are certain that this court will decide to impose on us various sentences … we do not fear such an outcome … We have brushed shoulders with the angels of death who guard the king and princes that occupy the apartheid throne … As we leave this building to go wherever the court decides, we wish to say to our people, we tried to carry out your behests, we did our best to live up to what you expected of us as members of the African National Congress …”

Chilling. How does one master the strength to remain true to conviction? He recalls that iNkosi Albert Luthuli once said to him: “We must let courage rise with danger.”

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Bruno Mtolo, who was the key state witness at his first sabotage trial in 1963, clearly failed this test. He simultaneously testified in the treason trial that sent Mandela to 27 years in jail. He also sent Comrade Ebie to his first stint of 15 years to Robben Island in 1963. Of the askari known as “September,” who was the key state witness in his second trial in 1987, Ebie says: “September affected me deeply. He was confident about his position … It was as if September had bought into the regime. This was actual betrayal, on a profound and destructive level.”

Beyond Fear is a journey into an amazing mind and marvellous heart. How does the tortured gather the emotional and physical strength to survive? How does one forgive those that engineered one’s abduction? That is the mystery that was comrade Ebie. To him, family was everything. Reflecting after his second sentence, he says: “I was ready to pay the price … My anxiety was more for the people who loved me.”

It would take over 20 years before he saw his beloved brother Gora, who too had answered the calling under the banner of the Pan Africanist Congress. It also meant his younger brother Essop had to take up employment at age 14 to care for the family. For this sacrifice, the book documents Ebie’s eternal gratitude.

The book reveals that it was the women in his life who played the most influential role. He says: “As I deepened into the revolutionary movement, I realised that one’s brothers could be one’s elders, and our leaders our parents.” Phyllis Naidoo became his Struggle mother, and first Helene Passtoors, and then eventually, Shannon Ebrahim had an immense role to play in creating a semblance of a ‘normal life’.

The book also illuminates the instability presented by an activist life. One could never take root in any particular locality. Thus he says: “I often wondered .. whether I would ever have children …” To have developed a relationship with a loving wife and children is a huge feat in itself. “We hadn’t had ‘normal relationships”, he says. “I myself saw how the mental health struggles of many comrades affected their ability to create a life for themselves after prison … I resolved to make sure I would have that loving family”.

Ebie’s favourite quote from Nikolai Ostrovsky remains a true description of him: “Man's dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the Liberation of Mankind.”

Even as he took up responsibilities in the transition period and in post-apartheid South Africa, his mind was on liberation and the fostering of global peace. The book presents insights on his global peace missions in East Timor, Israel and Palestine, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Colombia, Burundi, Zimbabwe, amongst other places. What is visible is his increasing energy levels. No doubt these were spurred on by love and energetic young children. It is this sum total of love, lived experience and humility that turned the young boy from Greyville into a global statesman who received awards from around the world.

The activist in him always knew he could not rest until all were free. Thus his parting shot to all of us was: “I have no regrets and I remain an optimist. I believe that South Africa will emerge stronger and more resilient from its present crisis, as it has done before”.

Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma is a member of parliament

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